Infrastructure in 2014: The drive for better service
Knowing, understanding and collaborating better with clients and other providers in the supply chain will be even more important for the industry in 2014 when demand for delivery of the best solutions is certain to grow.
One of the big questions as the industry exits recession is what attributes will companies require if they are not only going to grow but achieve a reasonable margin along the way? While there is no one answer, the starting point for the managing director of Mouchel Infrastructure Services (MIS) David Virden is “focusing on client needs”. It may be a well-worn phrase but for Virden it is also a fundamental truth.
MIS is the engineering and environmental consultancy division of international infrastructure and business services group Mouchel, which emerged revitalised following the company’s change of ownership in the second half of 2012 (see box).
“You have to really, really know what your client wants in order to consistently deliver the right solutions. If you don’t start with that insight and understanding, everything else you do - no matter how well you do it - isn’t going to be focused on the right activity,” says Virden.
“MIS has traditionally enjoyed good client relationships, but it is something never to be taken for granted. It’s a very competitive world so we’ve been investing time and money to ensure that we stay focused on clients’ needs and how we can add value.”
MIS’s new three-year business plan is both ambitious and dynamic. “The financial side of the business has now been strengthened and the inherent robustness of our business model is shining through,” says Virden. “MIS was doing very well technically and on project delivery, so we’re now looking at a phase of substantial and sustainable growth. We’ll be looking for a further 800 people this year.”
In recent months MIS has strengthened its approach to key account management with significant emphasis being placed on insights garnered by hundreds of its technical staff working closely with clients. “We sell expertise, so we’ve put more emphasis and structure around sharing what our technical professionals learn so we can be increasingly proactive in helping our clients with activities which add the most value or tackle the biggest risks,” says Virden.
His view is that excellent project management is vital to having productive client relationships. While many of the company’s projects are relatively short term, the majority are in support of long term clients. Virden adds “Our ability to deliver projects keeps clients happy and our work profitable.”
This recognition is why MIS has invested in developing and implementing a standardised set of project management methodologies - available to all the company’s project managers online as an ‘e-handbook’ - to cover projects of all sizes.
Developed in house by its own project staff, the handbook allows Virden to say: “The toolkit is made ‘by project managers for project managers’. It gives us increased resilience as we can more easily support work across projects and different parts of our business, and it has integral steps to catch lessons learned and share them so we drive continuous improvement.”
The introduction of clear staff career paths is another step which Virden believes ultimately adds value for customers. Like many of their technical colleagues, project managers now have a career path that means they can reach very senior posts while focusing on their professional discipline.
“In 2014 we will improve and extend this approach for technical staff. We are helping excellent people progress their careers, should they wish, without having to take on more general management roles and leave behind what they love doing. This helps attract and retain talent and means we can offer our clients a great depth of expertise,” notes Virden.
“That depth and range of expertise is vital. We can support clients throughout the lifecycle of their projects or physical infrastructure assets, from the initial evaluation of a proposal in the pre-planning stage right through to the disposal of an asset,” he adds.
“It’s a very competitive world so we’ve been investing time and money to ensure that we stay focused on clients’ needs and how we can add value”
David Virden, Mouchel Infrastructure Services
Towards the end of 2013 MIS was confirmed as a PAS 55 endorsed assessor. PAS 55 accreditation indicates the asset management competency of an asset owner or operator such as utility companies and transportation authorities. In turn, being an endorsed assessor is recognition of Mouchel’s assets expertise.
“You can’t survive without technical or commercial competence,” states Virden, “but winning commissions and then fulfilling these successfully means everyone needs to be aligned to the needs of our clients.
“It’s right that any business pursues the contracts where it feels it has experience and can add value. Really understanding our clients’ needs is the best way of ensuring we respond to the particular challenges in each project and avoid assumptions based on ‘what we did before’,” he adds.
Having set out MIS’s drive, Virden cites in particular the Highways Agency for its procurement advancements for well over a decade to foster partnerships and encourage continuous improvement.
“The initiatives include managing agent contractor, early contractor involvement and strategic partnering contracts with integrated team working of contractor, designer and supplier.
“It’s proof that when clients and their supply chain collaborate they can find ways of making substantial improvements,” Virden says.
At the Agency and in the wider highways sector, client collaboration is increasingly seen as an essential principle to support the delivery of best value.
This, as Agency procurement chiefs have proclaimed, will be an important aspect of delivering the wider objectives of the government’s efficiency programme.
Virden points to the various frameworks intended to identify areas for improved effectiveness and efficiency in client/supplier team working relationships. The latest iteration is the Collaborative Delivery Framework, which is designed to deliver £4bn to £5bn of schemes over the next four to six years.
“It is intended to establish even closer working ties with designers and Agency officials, and spans the entire major highways programme, including smart motorways,” says Virden, who adds that alliancing is not just restricted to highways. “It has a long history in the energy and water sectors,” he says.
“If you look at the water sector, our installation of water saving devices is conserving water, reducing household bills, and easing the requirement to upgrade infrastructure. At a more strategic level we are helping water utilities map flood risks. This helps them make a robust case to the industry regulator for investment costs and to focus that investment to optimise risk prevention.”
“Whether we work by ourselves, as a JV partner or a subcontractor, the crucial aspect is that we focus collaboratively on finding the best solutions for our clients”
David Virden, Mouchel Infrastructure Services
Echoing this ability to help clients get the most from their budgets is a range of highways-related activities. MIS carries out traffic flow analysis to enable the addressing of pinch points on highway networks, helping clients spend their money on improvements which make the biggest impact.
Innovative work on “smart” motorways has enabled “all lane running” to safely improve traffic capacity by using existing infrastructure while minimising additional capital outlay. The company also offers leading edge smart data collection and management to allow, for example, the “freeflow” collection of tolls without the need for barriers, plus detection of UK road users who have not paid VED and the enforcement of parking regulations.
“We’ve become adept at partnering with others - sometimes that’s due to the scale of a project but often it is because we have one part of the solution and another company brings the other necessary expertise for a successful bid,” observes Virden. “Harnessing different perspectives can be a brilliant way of developing the most efficient and effective ways of creating things.”
“We shouldn’t forget that collaboration starts ‘at home’,” he adds. “For example, our environment team routinely supports work won by our water business, and our highways design team frequently helps colleagues in our Middle East operation. Then we see collaboration with other parts of Mouchel and third parties.”
MIS is collaborating with ex-joint venture and now wholly owned EM Highway Services in providing congestion relief solutions and road renewal schemes for Highways Agency areas 1, 3 and 13. It is also the provider of technical maintenance and stewardship for one third of England’s strategic road network through the PeekMouchel joint venture (JV).
Additionally, in a JV with Thales the company is delivering the world’s largest information system devoted to traffic, the National Traffic Information Service for the Highways Agency. And the company’s intelligent transport business subset has played a big part in the winning by the DownerMouchel JV of significant highway maintenance contracts in Western Australia, and in positioning the company for work in New South Wales.
“Whether we work by ourselves, as a JV partner or a subcontractor, the crucial aspect is that we focus collaboratively on finding the best solutions for our clients,” says Virden.
Other examples include design and build work at Grimsby for car import facilities; dock and regeneration activity in the Dominican Republic, where Mouchel has been working for over 10 years; and design and project management of a liquid petroleum gas bottling plant in the Middle East. Virden says he is particularly pleased with the latter, where 1,200 people have worked for 6.5M hours so far without a reportable accident.
He says that understanding your customers and their markets helps you anticipate emerging trends, such as decarbonisation of energy, the demand for more real time travel information, and smoother and more predictable journey times.
“By listening to clients we’ve been developing a range of services for all these markets over the last few years,” asserts Virden, “and in several cases we’ve helped clients refine their thinking about how
they respond to challenges and opportunities. “That builds trust,
and if we’re trusted we’re in a good place to win business.”
But a focus on customers and collaboration means recruiting the right kind of personnel. “Problem-solving and the ability to build great relationships requires a certain kind of person - and that’s apart from all the other skill sets we’re after,” Virden says. By their nature those demands reduce the potential recruitment pool, a restriction Virden is more than willing to accept.
“Having the right people on board is so important to us,” he says. “We just have to be clear about what we offer. We’re growing, so that creates opportunities for career progress. We invest in professional development and help people achieve qualifications and chartered status.
“We work in a variety of sectors and countries, so our people can get a breadth of experience. We work on interesting projects and what we do improves the lives of millions of people every day.”
Mouchel’s latest annual results (for the company’s financial year ended 30 September 2013) were due out as this issue of NCE went to press.
The Mouchel Infrastructure Services order book early into 2012/2013 stood at 40% coverage. Now, 12 months on, it stands at 60%, a substantial year-on-year increase.
MIS recruited 300 new staff in the middle six months of 2013, including around 25 industry “big guns”, to work across its portfolio of activities, and will be looking for at least 800 newcomers by the end of 2014.